In the January issue of Web World, we talked about what a dynamic web site was and some of its defining attributes. Now lets investigate how to build a dynamic web site. As is the case with any web site, a clearly stated goal is the first place to start. Some questions that come to mind include: Do you want to simply give people access to information in existing database systems? Do you want the users to add information to the database as well? Are you looking to create a fully integrated electronic commerce solution? Or, do you want to create an Intranet for employees to have centralized access to the information they need. The best approach is to start small by just allowing access to the information and build on that. It may be advantageous to break up the implementation into stages so it is clear where the site is heading in the future.
HTML is by itís nature a very static medium; therefore, a web site requires extension software to make it dynamic. There are a number of approaches to providing the dynamic components. There is a server side approach and a client side approach. Server side approaches perform all the processing at the server while the client side approach sends the commands to the client browser for it to do the processing. Typically, the server side approach is the better method of adding interactivity to a site. Server side approaches do not require special browsers and the source code for the site can not be stolen. These are both large drawbacks of client side approaches. The other advantage for server side approaches is the lower bandwidth requirements since only results get passed to the client instead of all the source code. There are a number of excellent solutions on the market now. See the sidebar on software used for this purpose.
To create a dynamic web site requires people with skills in programming, database programming, HTML, graphics and business operations. Once a definition of the goal of the dynamic site is formulated, a decision will need to be made on how the site is to be created. There are three approaches that can be considered:
1. In House Development
By using software as described in the sidebar, the project can be accomplished by in house programmers. The in house staff will need some programming, HTML, business and graphics experience to properly implement a dynamic site. This approach can be more time consuming since this staff would need to be removed from other projects and they may not be aware of all the intricacies of a dynamic site.
2. Hire a Web Development firm
There are a couple of web development companies that specialize in the creation of dynamic web sites. This approach usually works out better since so many disparate skills are required. Look for a development firm that has created a number of different types of dynamic sites to be assured they can properly implement your unique solution. Many companies will find they have some of the necessary skills so they opt for the third choice.
3. Hybrid Approach
Many companies have one or two of the required skills in house. The hybrid approach takes the skills that are available and melds them with an external dynamic web site development firm to complement each other and deliver a working solution. Competent project management skills will be required in this case.
Most dynamic web sites that access existing database systems need to be located at the company premises for security considerations. This will require a dedicated connection to an ISP, typically through ISDN to provide enough speed. It will also involve the purchase and installation of a web server with extension software to make the site dynamic. If the data in the database is sensitive, then a firewall may also be necessary.
A book store can be used as a model of how to implement a dynamic site and to show some of the benefits of implementing a dynamic web site. ABC Books has a retail store and a wholesale division for school boards and other large book purchasers. They wish to take advantage of the web as a new marketing tool and decide to implement a dynamic web site. Their inventory and accounting systems are stored in ODBC compliant databases. The dynamic site, ABC Online, ties directly into the existing inventory and accounting system. Web surfers can search for books, find prices, place orders and check on back orders. When new books are added in the store, they automatically show in the web site. This allows the single entry of information into a database system and provides leverage of that effort on the web site. When a book is ordered on the web site, the order is placed directly into the existing accounting system. This order is then processed as any other regular
order would be. The advantage of this is that no new processes need to be created to deal with the web site orders. When data is changed in the regular system, the site reflects that change in real time. ABC Online also has a daily special which is randomly selected from a specified section of books that are overstocked. This type of business logic can be built into a dynamic site quite easily with some of the server extension software. ABC Online also has a preferred customer program that allows the display of different pricing based on the user. Many of ABC Books customers have implemented Intranets and are able to place orders from their internal systems to ABC Online using a form of Internet EDI. ABC Online also has a weekly email newsletter that users can sign up for. This can increase communications with their customers and give out information that is appreciated but was not available before.
The ABC Online project can allow ABC Books to offer more services to their customers while taking on very little extra work and that results in a healthier bottom line. Although this example is hypothetical, it can be implemented with the technology available today. Recurring fees for dynamic sites are more costly than static sites but they tend to also have greater returns. The development of a dynamic site can cost anywhere from $2 000 to $500 000; but generally averages between $5 000 and $20 000. Reaping the benefits of a dynamic web site can be very financially rewarding without costing a fortune.
Russ Cobbe is the President of Inline Internet Systems, Inc. which focuses on the development of dynamic web sites for corporate clients. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org